Voice from the Whirlwind: God Answers Job

God answered Job...When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various flocks and servants and then all of his children, and is stricken from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife's urging that he curse God and die but instead sits down in the dust in mournful resignation.

At this point, the prose of the frame-story switches into altogether remarkable poetry. The poetic Job begins by wishing he had never been born. Then, in three long rounds of debate, he confronts three friends who have come with all assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his own life, and in refuting his friends' charges, he repeatedly inveighs against God's crushing unfairness. Eventually, the Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind, mainly to show how presumptuous this human critic of divine justice has been.

The structure of the poem is expansive and associative (quite unlike the tight organization of Chapter 28), but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry. After the two brief opening lines in which the Lord challenges Job (38:2-3), the poems leads us briefly through the following movements: cosmology (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightening and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth…

Job's first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of man's essential, virtually ineluctable, egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and now he wants to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever. In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God's poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of a death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world's creation and going on to God's sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom. Instead of a constant focussing inward toward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and wing are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals live.

In Job's initial poem, various elements of the larger world were introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. When the world is seen here through God's eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing having its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wanted to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small, dark compass of the locked womb. God's poem by contrast moves through aeons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.

This general turning of Job's first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks.

Barnes and Noble linkFrom: Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), pp. 85, 94, 96-97.

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